Franz Rosenzweig and the Berliner Shtiebel

It is time that Israeli leaders, academicians and the Israeli public find their way back to the synagogue and rediscover their neshamot. But this is easier said than done. Many have entered and left without sensing any spiritual significance. In fact, many have entered and been discouraged and dismayed.

To attend synagogue is an art. People must come with a sincere urge to discover their Jewishness, to reconnect with their inner being and with the Jewish people. To enter the synagogue is to hope for a metamorphosis in one’s soul and a transformation of one’s personality.

When the well-known Jewish Philosopher Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) decided to leave Judaism and be baptized, he enacted this resolution by first attending the High Holiday services in a shtiebel (a small Orthodox synagogue) in Berlin. This was a final farewell to his former religion with which he never had a relationship. Arguing his case, he wrote: “We [Jews] are Christians in everything. We live in a Christian state, attend Christian schools, read Christian books; in short, our whole culture rests entirely on Christian foundations. Therefore, if a man has nothing to hold him back, he needs only a slight push…to make him accept Christianity.” (Quoted by Samuel Hugo Bergman, Faith and Reason: Modern Jewish Thought (NY: Schocken Books, 1961), p. 57.)

To his utter surprise, profoundly touched by the services, he underwent a deep religious metamorphosis and left the small synagogue with such a love for Judaism that he not only called off his decision to become a Christian, but decided to try and become a religious Jew. Consequently, he made a very intensive study of Judaism, wrote some remarkable works about his newfound religion, and turned into one of the most important thinkers of Judaism in modern times. (Rosenzweig’s most important work is The Star of Redemption. For a thorough critique, see: Eliezer Berkovits, Major Themes in Modern Philosophies of Judaism (NY: Ktav Publishing House, 1974) chap. 2.)

What happened to Rosenzweig during those few hours in that small synagogue? What turned his whole life around and eventually transformed him into a deeply religious Jew? How is such a metamorphosis possible, especially in a man of such great intellectual perception? Rosenzweig, after all, had spent years contemplating the possibility of converting to Christianity. He had discussed this with many of his friends who had encouraged him to do so. Still, within a few hours he decided to disregard his earlier decision and become a committed Jew!

The answer to these questions may be found in a highly significant midrash that tells of a Jewish apostate, by the name of Joseph Meshita, who helped the Romans destroy the Temple.

“When the enemies [the Romans] desired to enter the Temple Mount, they said, ‘Let one of them (the Jews) enter first.’ They said to Joseph Meshita, ‘Enter and whatever you bring out is yours.’ So he went in and brought out a golden lamp. They said to him, ‘It is not fitting for a common person to use this, so go in again, and whatever you bring out is yours.’ This time, he refused. They offered him three years’ taxes, yet he still refused and said, ‘Is it not enough that I have angered my God once that I should anger Him again?’ What did they do to him? They put him into a carpenter’s clamp and sawed him and dismembered him. He cried, ‘Woe to me that I angered my Creator!'” (Yalkut Shimoni Bereishit 115:12. I am indebted to Rabbi Yissocher Frand of Baltimore for making me aware of this midrash.)

Rabbi Yosef Kahaneman, the famous Ponevicher Rav, once commented that this midrash conveys the mighty impact that the Temple had on human beings. The moment Joseph Meshita entered the Temple he underwent a spiritual metamorphosis. He suddenly realized that he was a Jew and that he had been deeply touched by the unique and holy atmosphere in the Temple and by the symbols he found there. He still managed to take out a golden lamp, but once outside he realized that he could no longer enter the Temple a second time. His newfound neshama did not allow him to do so. Even when the Romans offered him great amounts of money and then threatened to torture him to death, he could not defile the House of God again.

In his weekly parsha commentary, Rabbi Yissocher Frand (Parashat Toldot: “100% for the Sake of Heaven” (1995/5756).) suggests that this midrash explains Franz Rosenzweig’s sudden transformation when he entered the small synagogue in Berlin. Once he saw Jews in prayer, tallitot over their heads and in deep concentration, his neshama awoke, and his Jewishness was restored.

This, however, needs further explanation. In what way do a synagogue and prayers suddenly awaken a Jewish soul that was totally removed from anything Jewish? What was in the Temple that made Joseph Meshita feel the overwhelming spiritual power to the extent that he could not go in a second time? As suggested above, it relates, first of all, to the attitude one has even before entering the Temple, or a synagogue. After all, many went in and were disappointed, and even discouraged. Others defiled the sanctuary and showed no remorse. As is well known, Titus entered the Temple and had intercourse with a harlot in the Holy of Holies. (Gittin 56b.) But even if one enters with the right approach, what turns this experience into a religious metamorphosis?

Here, we encounter the world of Jewish symbolism. According to kabbalistic thought, the physical symbols in the Temple, such as the altar and the menorah, are tangible reflections of the Ein Sof (the Infinite Divine matter), which descends into this world. These symbols are not fully comprehensible, since their essence belongs to the metaphysical world. Like some rituals, they touch on an aspect of human existence that cannot be reached in any other way. They are, however, identified by the subconscious, which has its root in the Divine, since man was formed in the Divine image. Consequently, they evoke in people an overwhelming recognition of the higher world, which gives them the unique feeling that they are looking into their own soul. This is the apperception of the neshama. The Temple was the representation of heaven on earth, and its symbols caused the soul to hear a perpetual murmur coming from waves far beyond the reach of any human. Such a divine manifestation would ultimately lead to the metamorphosis that Joseph Meshita experienced when he entered the Temple.

Similarly, Franz Rosenzweig discovered his own neshama while attending the service at the shtiebel in Berlin. Once he saw the symbolic objects, richly adorning the interior of the synagogue (representing the Temple), and simultaneously heard and read the prayers of the High Holidays, he entered the heavenly realm that had been continuously hovering within his soul. It revolutionized his inner being and brought heaven to earth. This happened not only from observing what took place in that small synagogue, but also from a desire to penetrate and become part of a highly significant religious experience.

This is what we suggest all Jews and Israelis try to accomplish: to enter a small synagogue filled with dedicated and passionate worshippers, and then to release all external and artificial components from their souls; to penetrate the surroundings in which they find themselves, and then to let go. This is far from easy, and indeed requires great courage, but the sudden feeling of belonging, which will result from an encounter with what we call the world of the neshama, will be unexpectedly blissful.

Much, however, depends on which synagogue the newcomer enters. Some synagogues are so devoid of any spiritual atmosphere that they repel the visitor who is seeking a religious experience. Many regular synagogue-goers do not realize the harm they do when they go through the motions of prayer without connecting with what they actually say. They show no enthusiasm or fire in their souls; in fact, they often look bored, as if waiting for the service to be over. While it is no doubt praiseworthy – and should not be underestimated – that they come, many of them daily, to the synagogue and participate in the services, for newcomers such behavior can be a letdown and often causes them to turn their backs on Judaism.

Attending synagogue must be a homecoming; it will spare the Jewish world a great amount of self-imposed harm.

* I use the word neshomeh here, instead of neshamah, because it conveys the connotation of a certain sensitive feeling developed throughout Jewish history, which the word neshamah does not contain.

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